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The Prohibition to See the Ark (I)

Rav Yitzchak Levy
03.12.2014

Introduction

 

            The prohibition to see the ark is explicitly stated in the Torah in the context of the description of the manner in which the vessels of the Mishkan were carried by the Levites in the wilderness:

 

But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die. (Bamidbar 4:20)

 

            During a later period, we find that the people of Beit-Shemesh were punished for seeing the ark when it was returned to Israel by the Pelishtim:

 

And they of Beit-Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley, and they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it… And He smote the men of Beit-Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, smiting fifty thousand and seventy men of the people. And the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. (Shmuel I 6:13-19)

 

            We will examine the relevant verses in the Torah and the account of the return of the ark in the book of Shmuel, and thereby attempt to understand the nature, essence, and scope of the prohibition.

 

The Prohibition in the Torah

 

            Let us begin by examining the verses in the Torah:

 

But thus do to them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy things. Aharon and his sons shall go in and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden. But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered (ke-bala), lest they die. (Bamidbar 4:17-20)

 

            What is the meaning of the term ke-bala (translated here as "when they are covered") used in connection with the holy things?

 

1. Ke-bala – a term indicating covering.

 

            Onkelos (ad loc.) renders the verse as follows:

 

But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered (kad mekhasan), lest they die.

 

Similarly, Rashi writes:

 

But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are wrapped up, each into its wrapping, as I have explained above in this section: "And they shall spread upon it such-and-such a garment," "and they shall cover (ve-khisu) it over with such-and-such a cover," for the "wrapping-up" of it [mentioned here] is identical with the "covering-up" of it [mentioned in those passages].

 

Rashi essentially cites the words of the gemara in tractate Yoma:

 

R. Katina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the parokhet would be removed for them and the keruvim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman. R. Chisda raised the following objection: "But they shall not go in to see the holy things when the holy things are covered," and in connection with this R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: It means at the time when the vessels are being put into their wrappings. R. Nachman answered: This may be compared to a bride. As long as she is in her father's house, she is reserved in regard to her husband, but when she comes to her father-in-law's house, she is no more so reserved in regard to him. (54a)

 

R. Katina describes that when all of Israel ascended to Jerusalem for the Pilgrimage Festivals, the parokhet would be rolled back for them and they would be shown the keruvim, which where intertwisted with one another. R. Chisda objects that the biblical verse implies that the Levites were forbidden to see the holy things, lest they die. How, then, is it possible that those arriving for the Pilgrimage Festivals would be shown the keruvim? R. Nachman answers with his analogy to the case of a bride. In the wilderness, the people of Israel were not familiar and intimate with the Shekhina; there, looking at the exposed ark would have been considered an audacious act. But in the permanent Temple built by Shlomo in Jerusalem, the people had already become accustomed to the Shekhina's dwelling in their midst, and they could therefore look at the ark with love.

 

            This answer is exceedingly interesting in itself; it draws a clear distinction between the temporary Mishkan in the wilderness and the permanent Mikdash in Jerusalem. In the Mishkan, when the connection between God and Israel was first established, one was forbidden to gaze upon the ark, but following the building of the First Temple, when Israel was already accustomed to its connection with God, one was permitted to behold it.

 

            There is, however, a difficulty with this understanding. Was the prohibition indeed removed in the permanent Mikdash in Jerusalem? Was one permitted to see the ark there?[1]

 

2. Ke-bala – a term indicating immediacy, in the blink of an eye.

 

            The Septuagint translates the phrase "ke-vala et ha-kodesh" to mean "in the blink of an eye." We find a similar understanding in the midrash:

 

"But they shall not go in to see ke-bala et ha-kodesh." What is ke-bala? R. Levi said: If they look into the ark, like a speck (bala) that enters one's eyes [the length of a blink], they immediately die. Know [that this is right] from the people of Beit-Shemesh, for it is stated: "And He smote the men of Beit-Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, smiting [fifty thousand and seventy men] of the people. He only killed the people of Beit-Shemesh because they saw inside the ark. Therefore, he warned the sons of Kehat: "But they shall not go in to see." (Bamidbar Rabba 5:9 [68])

 

            Modern commentators adduce proof for this understanding from a verse in the book of Iyov:

 

How long will you not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow (ke-bil'i) down my spittle? (7:19)

 

            That is to say, a moment of time, the blink of an eye. According to this, the verse means that the Levites must not go in to see the holy things for even the blink of an eye.

 

3. Ke-bala – a term indicating dismantling and destruction.

 

            The Rashbam (ad loc.) writes:

 

"Ke-bala et ha-kodesh" – When they dismantled the sanctuary, it became exposed, and if they would look, they would die. As we find in connection with the people of Beit-Shemesh, "because they had looked into the ark of the Lord." The word bala is like "The Lord has swallowed up" (bala) (Eikha 2:2); "They destroy (bilei'u) the way of your paths" (Yeshaya 3:12); "He has swallowed up (bila) all her palaces" (Eikha 2:5); "And they that are led by them are destroyed (mevula'im) (Yeshaya 9:15). And similarly it is written above that from the moment that they would begin to dismantle the Mishkan, the sons of Kehat would distance themselves. As it is written: "And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen" (Bamidbar 4:5) and the entire section until: "And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary… after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it" (ibid. v. 15).[2]

 

            The Rashbam adduces proof in support of his understanding from verses in Eikha and Yeshaya, where the word bala denotes destruction. He explains that with the destruction of the sanctuary (i.e., the removal of the parokhet), the ark became exposed, and had people looked, they would have died.

 

            The Ibn Ezra cites both understandings in his commentary:

 

But the Kehatites shall not go into the Ohel Mo'ed to see ke-bala et ha-kodesh. This means that when its building is removed, the screen of the parokhet will be removed and the ark will be exposed. Others say that bala means "cover," and the verse means, "when they cover the ark to carry it." This is more convincing than the first explanation. There are two prohibitions: that they must not touch the holy thing, but carry it with its poles, and that they must not see the holy things.[3]

 

Ibn Ezra's first explanation follows the Rashbam, interpreting the verse as referring to "destruction." According to the second explanation, which the Ibn Ezra prefers, ke-bala should be understand as if it were in the hif'il conjugation, "ke-havli'a." When they covers the vessels, it is as if they are swallowed up in their covers.

 

4.  Ke-bala – a term indicating theft and robbery:

 

            When the Ramban summarizes the various opinions, he cites the gemara in Sanhedrin and says as follows:

 

"But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are wrapped up" – when they placed the vessel into its wrapping, as I have explained above in this section: "And they shall spread upon it such-and-such a garment," "and they shall cover it over with such-and-such a cover," for the "wrapping-up" of it [mentioned here] is identical with the "covering-up" of it [mentioned in those passages]. These are the words of Rashi. This is also the opinion of Onkelos. But our Rabbis said in tractate Sanhedrin (81b) that this is a warning regarding one who steals a service vessel, who he is liable for death, and zealots have a right to strike him. For robbery and theft are called beli'a, as in: "He has swallowed down (bala) riches, and he shall vomit them up" (Iyov 20:15); "And I will take out of his mouth that which he has swallowed up (bil'o)" (Yirmiya 51:44). And R. Avraham [Ibn Ezra] explains this in its simple sense that they should not come to see when the veil of the screen is removed and the ark is exposed, but only afterwards when it is covered should they come to carry it. "Ke-bala et ha-kodesh" is like "when the building is removed from the ark which is the holy," as in "The Lord has swallowed up" (bala) (Eikha 2:2); "[Your hands have made me and fashioned me] together round about; yet you destroy me (va-teval'eini)" (Iyov 10:8). The Levites are warned that they must not touch the holy ark, lest they die, but they may only carry it with its poles. And they are also warned that they must not come to see anything of the removal of the building while Aharon removes the parokhet, as it says: "Because they had looked into the ark of the Lord" (Shmuel I 6:19). And he said well. But in truth the verse means that because the glory of He Who sits on the keruvim is there, the Levites were warned that they not break through to see the Lord before the priests remove the parokhet, for then the glory will be seen in the hiding of its power, and return to its first place in the Holy of Holies, and "ke-bala et ha-kodesh" can be understood in its plain sense. And the person who understands will understand.

 

            The Ramban first cites the view of Rashi and Onkelos, who understand the word ke-bala in the sense of cover. He then adduces proofs to the gemara's understanding in tractate Sanhedrin that the term is used here in the sense of robbery and theft. After bringing the words of the Ibn Ezra, he tries to explain the essence of the prohibition, saying that the glory of He Who sits on the keruvim rested on the ark, and there the glory appeared in the hiding of its power.

 

            Rabbeinu Bachye elaborates on the words of the Ramban:

 

According to the Kabbala, "And they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered," when the glory is swallowed up and it returns to its original place to the holy on high. It is known that all year long the glory would leave the cloud and enter the innermost chamber and appear on the kaporet. This is what is written: "For in the cloud I appear upon the kaporet" (Vayikra 16:2). It does not say: "For I appear in the cloud," but rather it says: "For in the cloud I appear." That is to say, I come in the pillar of cloud, and then I leave the cloud and appear upon the kaporet. I already mentioned this in its place (Vayikra 16:2).

Therefore, the High Priest was only permitted to go in there once a year on Yom Kippur, and even on Yom Kippur he was only permitted to go in with incense; and not that he should enter with the burning incense, but rather he should cause it to smoke there, so that the glory is covered from his eyes. As it is written: "That the cloud of the incense may cover the kaporet." This is the meaning of the warning to the Levites, "But they shall not go in as the glory is swallowed into the Holy," which is the hiding of its power.

 

Rabbeinu Bachayei clarifies the words of the Ramban, explaining that the glory, as it were, returns to its original place, to the holy on high, and appears on the kaporet. He illustrates this with the glory that first appears in the cloud and then leaves the cloud and appears on the kaporet. As it were, the glory which at first was seen outside enters the innermost and most sanctified chamber and rests upon the kaporet.

 

            In his commentary to the verse:

 

"Speak to Aharon your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the parokhet before the kaporet, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet. (Vayikra 16:2)  

 

Rabbeinu Bechayei explains the obligation as follows:

 

And so it is the way of the glory all the other days of the year to appear there on the kaporet, and the High Priest is not permitted to go in on the other days of the year, but only on Yom Kippur. And therefore he needed the incense of Yom Kippur, so that his eyes be covered, and his eyes not take in the splendor of the glory.

 

Rabbeinu Bachayei explains that the entire purpose of the High Priest's entering the Holy of Holies with the incense is that his eyes should not take in the splendor of the glory. In other words, because he is prohibited to see the glory, the High Priest must enter the Holy of Holies with the incense.[4]

           

The manner in which the ark was covered and the Parokhet was removed

 

            Based on our understanding of the concern about the Kehatites seeing the ark which could lead to their death, we can explain the manner in which the parokhet was removed and the ark was covered when the Mishkan was disassembled in the wilderness. The midrash relates to the way that the priests covered the ark when the Mishkan was taken apart:

 

"And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: When they take the Mishkan apart, the Kehatites shall not remove the parokhet from in front of the ark, but rather the sons of Aharon shall enter and remove it, because they are priests. And our Rabbis taught (Middot 1:1): The priests stand guard on the inside, whereas the Levites are on the outside. The barrier of the priests is greater than that of the Levites. What did the sons of Aaron do when they took down the parokhet? R. Chama bar R. Chanina said: There were large poles with hooks of gold on top, and some say of iron, and they lifted up the parokhet and unhooked it. And nevertheless they did not bring it down all at once, so that they should not see the ark. Rather they brought it down little by little, so that they covered the ark. From where do we know that God said this to Moshe? As it says: "Aharon shall come, and his sons." They said: The parokhet was similar to a curtain, and it was a handbreadth thick, and it was woven around seventy two cords, each cord comprised of twenty four threads. Three hundred priests immersed it, and two High Priests carried it on poles before the ark. And afterwards they put on it a covering of tachash skins, so that nothing at all would be seen of the ark. This is what it says (Bamidbar 4:6): "And they shall put on it the covering of tachash skins." (Bamidbar Rabba 4:13)

 

The midrash first emphasizes that it was the priests who removed the parokhet, and not the Levites, because it was the priests who guarded the sanctuary from the inside, while the Levites guarded from the outside, owing to the sanctity of the ark. In order that they not see the ark, Aharon and his sons would lift the parokhet with the help of long wooden poles, unhook the hooks, advance with the parokhet toward the ark, and cover it.

 

            The midrash reads the verse precisely. It says: "And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of testimony with it." The verse does not say they shall remove the veil, but rather they shall take it down. Understanding the parokhet as a screen reinforces the understanding that in this case it was meant as a cover for the ark. The midrash adds that the covering of tachash skins was necessary so that the ark not be seen from the outside.

 

            Elsewhere, the midrash attempts to deduce from the order of the covering of the ark the case in which the Kehatites would die because they saw the ark:

 

"But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered." R. Yehuda Ha-Levi the son of R. Shalom said: If you wish to learn in which case the Kehatites died, learn it from this verse: "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered." This teaches that when they came to carry the ark, they would remove the parokhet from before it, and their eyes would see the ark. Therefore they would die, as it is stated: "For no man shall see Me and live" (Shemot 33:20). What did Moshe do to help them? God said to him: When they take the Mishkan apart, the Kehatites shall not remove the parokhet from in front of the ark, but rather the sons of Aharon shall enter and remove it because they are priests. And they shall cover the ark, and so too the table and all the vessels. This will help them so that they not die, if they do not look at the ark. This is what is written: "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered," i.e., the ark, if they do this. (Bamidbar Rabba 5:9)

 

            The midrash argues that at first the Kehatites would remove the parokhet and see the ark, and therefore they would die, as it says: "No man shall see Me, and live." Moshe changed matters and established that the Kehatites would not remove the parokhet; instead, this is done by the sons of Aharon, because they are priests. They cover the ark and the rest of the vessels, and in this way the Kehatites do not die, as they do not see the ark.

 

The midrash implies that Moshe introduced two changes: First, he replaced the Kehatites with the sons of Aharon. The priests entered into the Holy of Holies, while the Levites did not.     The second change, as described in the previous midrash, related to the manner in which the ark was covered. The priests would take the heavy parokhet and advance toward the ark, with the parokhet blocking their view of the ark. This allowed them to enter the area of the inner chamber and cover the ark without seeing it and without putting their lives in danger.[5]

 

            The Midrash Tanchuma describes the miracles that were performed in connection with the ark and how the Kehatites could carry the ark without fearing for their lives:

 

"But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered" – See how miracles were performed in connection with the ark. If so, how could they carry it without fearing [for their lives]? Rather, this is what the Kehatites would do. Two High Priests would carry the parokhet on poles before the ark, and then they would place upon it the covering of tachash skin, so that they not see the ark at all, as it is stated: "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered." (Vayakhel 7)

 

THe High Priest's entry into the HOly of Holies on Yom Kippur and his burning of the incense[6]

 

And the Lord said to Moshe, "Speak to Aharon, your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the parokhet before the kaporet, which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet." (Vayikra 16:2)

 

How did God appear on the kaporet? The Rashbam (ad loc.) explains the matter as follows:

 

"For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet." According to the plain sense, this means: For it is from within the pillar of cloud that I appear at all times on the kaporet, as it is written: "And I shall speak with you from between the two keruvim" (Shemot 25:22). And were the priest to see [this], he would die. Therefore when he would enter on Yom Kippur, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that he should first burn incense inside to darken the chamber with a cloud of incense, and [only] afterwards bring the blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat.

 

According to the Rashbam, the reason that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with the incense was so that he should not die as a result of seeing the ark. Not only is it forbidden to see the ark, but seeing it causes death. In order to prevent such an outcome, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to burn incense and in that way darken the chamber.

 

            The Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) explains:

 

"For in a cloud" – The reason that he may only enter with incense is so that it should make a cloud and he should not see the Glory, lest he die. It means: I shall appear to him only in a cloud. And some say that it means: "For in a cloud" – Because I live in a cloud upon the kaporet, as in: "The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness" (I Melakhim 8:12).

 

The Ibn Ezra points out that on the one hand, entry into the Holy of Holies must be with incense, so that one should not see the Glory of God and die. On the other hand, the appropriate way for God to appear is specifically through a cloud, as it says with respect to the First Temple that God dwells in a concealed place in thick darkness. God reveals Himself to Israel in different ways – sometimes in thick darkness, at other times in a fire or in a cloud.[7]

 

            Let us explain. When the people of Israel left Egypt, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud went before the people to guide them (Shemot 13:21-22). At Mount Sinai as well, the Shekhina revealed itself in fire and in a cloud (Shemot 19:9, 16-18; 20:14; 24:15-18; Devarim 5:18-19). The same is true regarding the dedication of the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34-35) and the dedication of the First Temple (I Melakhim 8:10-11):

 

Then spoke Shlomo, "The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in forever." (I Melakhim 8:12-13)

 

Rashi explains this to mean that the appearance of the cloud signifies the resting of the Shekhina:

 

"Then spoke Shlomo" – When he saw the cloud he said: Now I see that the Shekhina rests in the house that I have built, for thus You have promised to come and dwell in it from within the cloud and the darkness. Where did He say this? "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet" (Vayikra 9:12). Thus it is taught in the Sifrei.[8]

 

            It is interesting that the midrash derives the divine promise to dwell in the Mikdash from within the cloud and the darkness from the Yom Kippur service: "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet." In other words, the midrash understands that this is the manner in which God reveals Himself in that place.

 

            If so, the fire and the cloud are essentially two components of the revelation of the Shekhina, which is comprised of God's glory, which resembles fire in its light and splendor and of the cloud that surrounds it. Since this is a single entity, the account of the dedication of the Temple mentions only the cloud, although the reference is to the cloud and the fire within it. That fire of the glory of God is the fire that descended upon the altar.

 

            When we examine the matter more closely, we see that this principle is already expressed in the first appearance of the cloud in the Torah, in the covenant made with Noach when he emerged from the ark:

 

"I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth… And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant…" (Bereishit 9:13-16)

 

Fundamentally, the covenant was made through the rainbow, but the rainbow does not stand on its own; it appears against the background of a cloud:

 

And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (ibid. v. 14)

 

            Indeed, in the account of the Chariot in the book of Yechezkel, it says that the appearance of the glory of God as a fire in a cloud resembles the appearance of the rainbow in the cloud:

 

And I looked, and, behold, a storm wind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire flaring up, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst of it, as it were the color of electrum, out of the midst of the fire… And above the firmament that was over their head was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man about upon it. And I saw something like the color of electrum, like the appearance of the fire round about enclosing it; from what appeared to be his loins upward, and from what appeared to be his loins downward, I saw what appeared to be fire, and there was a brightness round about him. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one that spoke. (Yechezkel 1:4, 26-28)

 

            We find at the end of the book of Shemot that in the wake of the revelation of the Shekhina in the fire and in the cloud, Moshe was unable to enter the Ohel Mo'ed:

 

Then a cloud covered the Ohel Mo'ed and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was not able to enter the Ohel Mo'ed, because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.(Shemot 40:34-35)

 

The Rashbam argues that there were two stages to the Shekhina's resting in the cloud in the Mishkan and in the Mikdash:

 

"And Moshe was not able to enter the Ohel Mo'ed" – At the time of its erection, because the cloud rested upon it immediately, to show the love of the Holy One, blessed be He, for Israel. Afterwards, the cloud removed itself from within the tent and rested on the ark, as it is written: "And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you… from between the two keruvim." Then Moshe went in to the Ohel Mo'ed, as it is written: "And when Moshe was gone into the Ohel Mo'ed to speak with Him, then he heard the voice speaking to him… from between the two keruvim, and it spoke to him." And similarly you find regarding the permanent sanctuary: "So that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord." At the time of the completion of the sanctuary, the Holy One, blessed be He, sanctified it with a cloud, and afterwards He restricted His Shekhina to upon the ark between the poles.

 

The Rashbam describes the transition from the cloud that rested on the Ohel Mo'ed at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan to the cloud that rested on the ark when the Mishkan was actually standing, and a similar transition with respect to the Mikdash.

 

            The connection between this understanding and the appearance of the cloud upon the kaporet when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur is very interesting.

 

            The Torah describes at length the encampments and the journeys of the Mishkan in the wilderness based upon the cloud (Bamidbar 9:15-23), emphasizing that everything was done at the commandment of God. How are we to understand the appearance of the cloud?

 

            On the one hand, the passages that we have studied imply that the cloud came to cover and conceal the revelation of the Shekhina. The term "cover" is used both at the end of Shemot ("And the cloud covered the Ohel Mo'ed") and in the book of Bamidbar ("The cloud covered the Mishkan, namely, the Ohel Mo'ed… the cloud covered it"), and as we saw earlier, at the dedication of the Mishkan and at the dedication of the Mikdash, the cloud concealed the resting of the Shekhina and prevented entry into the sanctuary.

 

            However, those very same passages include other formulations that imply that the cloud itself gave expression to the resting of the Shekhina: "Because the cloud rested upon it," "And in the place where the cloud abode… as long as the cloud abode upon the Mishkan… And at times it was, that the cloud was a few days upon the Mishkan." The presentation of the cloud during the day as parallel to the fire at night (which was certainly a revelation of the Shekhina) also demonstrates that the cloud reveals and demarcates the presence of the Shekhina. And of course, the very fact that the cloud determined the journeys and encampments of the Mishkan stems from the fact it represents the Shekhina: The cloud's ascent from the Mishkan implies that God is removing Himself from the place, and the cloud's resting represents God's encampment, as it were. When Israel follows the cloud, they are, in effect, following in the footsteps of God.

 

            Moreover, it explicitly says in several places in the book of Bamidbar that God reveals Himself and appears in the cloud:

 

And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spoke to him and took of the spirit that was upon him and gave it to the seventy elders. (Bamidbar 11:25)

 

And the Lord came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tent. (Bamidbar 12:5)

 

And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moshe and against Aharon, that they looked toward the Ohel Mo'ed; and, behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared.(Bamidbar 17:7)

 

            Moshe also mentions the cloud as a clear expression of the resting of God's Shekhina on His nation Israel:

 

And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land, who have heard that You Lord are among this people, that You Lord are seen face to face, and that Your cloud stands over them, and that You go before them, by day time in a pillar of cloud and in a pillar of fire by night. (Bamidbar 14:14)

 

            In practice, the cloud accompanies the people of Israel from the time of their exodus from Egypt throughout their journeys in the wilderness. It appears for the last time when the leadership is transferred from Moshe to Yehoshua (Devarim 31:15); it is not found in the book of Yehoshua. Thus, the cloud expresses the revelation of the Shekhina and its resting upon Israel in the framework of God's miraculous, direct, and unmediated governance of Israel, which characterized the period of the wilderness.

 

            We learn from this that the cloud represents concealment and revelation at one and the same time. In its essence, the cloud is a covering, but that very covering involves appearance and revelation, for the very appearance of a covering testifies to the existence of that which is covered.

 

            The prophet Yeshaya offers a future vision of a Divine revelation on the mountain of God in a cloud of smoke and fire:

 

And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall there be a canopy. (Yeshaya 4:5)

 

            We have related here in brief to the appearance of the cloud in the Torah. Based on all these appearances, it may be argued that the High Priest's entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur allows him to achieve the greatest possible intimacy with God, but in a state of covering, so that the High Priest does not see that "I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet."

 

            In this sense, in this context there is also concealment and revelation. This is directly connected to the dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding the manner in which the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the incense:

 

Our Rabbis taught: "And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord" (Vayikra 16:13) – i.e., he must not put it in order outside and thus bring it in. [This is] to remove the error from the minds of the Sadducees, who said: He must prepare it without, and bring it in. What is their interpretation? "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet" (ibid. v. 2) – this teaches us that he prepares it outside and brings it in. The Sages said to them: But it is said already: "And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord." If so, for what purpose is it stated, "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet"? It comes to teach us that he puts into it a smoke-raiser. From where do we know that he must put a smoke-raiser into it? Because it is said: "So that the cloud of the incense may cover the kaporet." (Yoma 53a)

 

The Sadducees understood from the verse, "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet," that the High Priest must enter into the Holy of Holies by way of a cloud, and he therefore must prepare the cloud while he is still in the Heikhal, before he goes into the Holy of Holies. The Pharisees, in contrast, inferred from the verse, "And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord," that this burning of incense is a service that must be performed in the inner chamber. It is possible that the Sadducees assumed that the incense is intended to conceal and to create a screen behind which the Shekhina can reveal itself. In contrast, the Pharisees assumed that the burning of the incense is itself a human service that leads to the resting of the Shekhina. In order that upon the priest's entry into the Holy of Holies the chamber should fill with smoke, use was made of a smoke-raiser that would allow the kaporet to be covered and the chamber filled with smoke relatively quickly and effectively.

 

            R. Brandes explains the dispute as follows:

 

The Sadducees understand that the idea of the incense is to conceal God's appearance. In contrast, the Pharisaic position is that the High Priest's entry into the Holy of Holies is intended to increase the Shekhina's appearance.[9]

 

            Based on what we have seen thus far there is a prohibition to see the ark. This prohibition is derived from what is stated explicitly regarding that manner in which the Mishkan was carried by the Levites in the wilderness, from what is stated with respect to the manner in which the priests would cover the ark before the Levites would carry it, and from what is stated with respect to the service accompanying the High Priest's entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

 

Similarly, as we have seen, according to the gemara in Yoma, there is a question as to whether the prohibition was in force only in the Mishkan and during the period that the people of Israel were in the wilderness, or also in the permanent Mikdash in Eretz Yisrael.

 

According to Scripture, there is room to examine what exactly is forbidden to be seen. On the one hand, the Torah says: "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die" (Bamidbar 4:20), while on the other hand it says: "For I appear in a cloud upon the kaporet" (Vayikra 16:2).

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 


[1] We will relate later to the various opinions among the Rishonim regarding whether or not this prohibition applies for all generations.

[2] The Chizkuni also explains the verse in this manner.

[3] The Rashbam and the Ramban relate to the two prohibitions, the prohibition to see and the prohibition to touch, together. We will address the prohibition to touch the ark in a separate shiur.

[4] Rabbeinu Bechayei also relates to the disagreement between the Pharisees and the Saducees (Yoma 53a) regarding whether the incense was prepared outside, as argued by the Saducees, or only inside the Holy of Holies, as maintained by the Pharisees.

[5] According to this midrash, the question arises as to why the Kehatites were originally chosen to remove the parokhet and put themselves in danger of seeing the ark.

[6] See the above citation from Rabbeinu Bachayei.

[7] We dealt with this form of revelation in our shiur: "The Mishkan in the Camp and in Transit (Part II) – The Cloud and the Fire Over the Mishkan"http://vbm-torah.org/archive/mikdash2/40mikdash.htm.

[8] The midrash cited by Rashi is not found in the version of the Sifrei that we have. See Mekhilta Bo, Massekhta De-Pischa, 12.

[9] R. Brandes deals with the spiritual meaning of this disagreement in his article about the incense in: "U-beyom Tzom Kippur YechateimunMa'amarim al Yom Ha-Kippurim," ed. Tevunot, pp. 91-109. 

, full_html, The prohibition to see the ark is explicitly stated in the Torah in the context of the description of the manner in which the vessels of the Mishkan were carried by the Levites in the wilderness.

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